By Dana Marlowe – It’s Friday afternoon, and I’m supposed to have company stay at my house for the weekend. I move to tidy up the guest room until I remember what it has become: the hive that is I Support the Girls. What’s buzzing in that hive? Oh, 12,000 bras, give or take a few hundred, and nearly 50,000 individual menstrual products comprising ‘Mount Maxipad’. Suffice it to say, I no longer have usable furniture—the bureau is permanently blocked by the continuous stream of donations I collect for women and girls in need around the world.
I Support the Girls just hit its second anniversary, and it’s been a whirlwind of unprecedented success in outreach, advocacy, and education. But despite being surrounded by pushup bras and lacy camisoles, this isn’t sexy work. I Support the Girls was created to provide bras and menstrual products to homeless and low-income women in need. We were founded in 2015, by chance. I regularly juggle a taxing workweek, raising two young boys, a few entrepreneurial groups, a husband, and I live in a busy area. You typically don’t get to choose when inspiration strikes in our over scheduled world, and that’s exactly what happened to me.
As can be so common when we multitask and put ourselves last on our the list, I gained weight. Once I noticed, I decided to embark on a year of revised healthy mind/body focus. I dropped a considerable amount of weight, but what they don’t tell you on the packages of steamed vegetables is that you should prepare for your bra size to decrease. After some loose straps getting in the way, I went to get fitted properly at a bra store, which was life-changing in the most unexpected way.
I certainly didn’t mean to start a national non-profit or global NGO, but sometimes accidents happen.
As I was getting sized, I asked the sales associate if I could do anything with my drawer full of older bras. She shared four words that changed everything for me. “Homeless women need bras.” Like the butterfly effect, she had no idea that her words would inspire a movement that would become I Support the Girls, and me to become the “Bra Fairy”.
When I got home, I called a homeless shelter in D.C. and said, “I went on your website and it says you don’t need undergarments, but I have 16 nice, gently used bras. I don’t know if you need them or would accept them…”, and the man on the phone relied, “Yes!” before I could finish the question. He said, “No one donates bras. We’ll take them. Do you also have menstrual products?” I sure did, but it was only my donation at this point. I wondered if anyone else would pitch in?
To test my question, I put a post out on Facebook in early July, explaining what I had just learned – that homeless women need bras and menstrual hygiene products – and that if anyone wanted to give me any donations, I would take them in. My status exploded. I equate it to lightning in a bottle. People said that they would ask all their friends to donate or that they would bring the idea to their workplace.
By mid-July, with a glass of wine in hand, I created a Facebook page called Support the Girls (get it?), thinking it was tongue-in-cheek, with my goal being to centralize the donations. Suddenly, it was September, and all these bras were pouring in. I was doing porch pickups and collections were happening at companies, schools, colleges, synagogues, and churches. My 16 bras turned into over 1,000 bras and over 7,000 menstrual hygiene products in no time. I thought that was A LOT… but boy, was I wrong!
Our first donation was in October 2015, and our numbers have continued to skyrocket from there. In these last two years, we’ve grown from my initial basement headquarters in Maryland to 50 national affiliates across the U.S. and 5 international partners – women across the globe banding together to help supply bras and menstrual products to women in need.
But why bras? Why tampons? Two answers: they are expensive, and nobody thinks to donate them. Chalk it up the taboos surrounding breasts and menstruation, but they are often invisible items that are so dire to the health, dignity, and self-esteem of all women. Homeless women are some of the most invisible and marginalized segments of our populations. This makes the need twice as great.
But why bras? Why tampons? Two answers: they are expensive, and nobody thinks to donate them. Chalk it up the taboos surrounding breasts and menstruation…
Now two years later, I am still stunned by the global storm of advocacy. The ask for I Support the Girls is so easy, and while it never goes unanswered, the need continues to grow. To that end, we have expanded the platform of I Support the Girls to collect not just for homeless women and girls, but also for disaster relief, breast cancer patients, correctional facilities, refugees, girls fleeing cults, and anywhere a woman faces the tough choice of a hot meal or a maxi pad. We also recognize that not all women have periods and not all people who have periods are women, so we are fervent supports of transgender organizations. To date, we have donated over 300,000 bras; 50,000 pair of underwear; and over 1.1 MILLION maxipads and tampons to over 300 vetted charity organizations globally.
I certainly didn’t mean to start a national non-profit or global NGO, but sometimes accidents happen. I Support the Girls has been a lesson in empathy for me. What I’ve seen has rattled me to the core in such a positive light. I know I can’t end homelessness, but armed with the fierce team that makes up I Support the Girls, we’re pushing forth our message that homeless women have a right to health and dignity, one bra and tampon at a time.
About The Author
Dana Marlowe is the Founder & Executive Director of I Support the Girls, the President of Accessibility Partners, a company that hires people with disabilities to help make technology like websites and mobile apps more accessible and usable for people with disabilities, and a staunch human rights advocate. You can connect with her and support her mission on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.